43 pages 1 hour read

Ian McEwan

Atonement

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2001

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Atonement (2001) is an award-winning novel by British author Ian McEwan that spans the last two-thirds of the 20th century. The novel was a New York Times Bestseller for seven straight weeks and shortlisted for the Booker Prize for fiction in 2001. The 2007 film adaptation won an Academy Award, two Golden Globes, and a BAFTA Award. McEwan is critically acclaimed with over a dozen novels and other works of fiction to his name, as well as a multitude of prestigious awards and fellowships. Atonement is metafiction, which means that the novel draws attention to itself as a work of literature, discussing the literary devices and other storytelling elements it contains. In 2010, Time magazine chose Atonement as one of the 100 greatest English-language books since 1923. This guide uses an eBook version of the 2003 Anchor Books edition.

Content warning: Please be advised that Atonement depicts sexual violence including the sexual abuse of a child.

Plot Summary

Briony Tallis is a 13-year-old girl whose wealthy family lives on a country estate in England in the 1930s. Briony dreams of becoming a writer. Her older sister, Cecilia, graduated from Cambridge University with childhood friend, Robbie Turner. Robbie’s mother is a servant on the Tallis estate. Jack Tallis, the girls’ father, funded Robbie’s education. Now, after working as a gardener for many years on the Tallis estate, Robbie plans to become a doctor. Briony’s cousins—15-year-old Lola and nine-year-old twins, Jackson and Pierrot—visit the Tallis estate while their parents are settling a difficult divorce.

When the cousins arrive, Briony decides to stage a play, The Tale of Arabella, which she writes. Intended to impress her older brother, Leon, the play fails because Briony is too short-tempered to direct her unruly cousins. Meanwhile, Robbie and Cecilia are attempting to understand their feelings. Despite Briony’s precociousness, she fails to understand the nature of Cecilia’s and Robbie’s relationship. She watches from a window as they argue in front of a fountain in the garden: a vase is broken, and Cecilia removes her clothes to wade into the fountain and collect the pieces. From afar, Briony believes that Robbie is threatening her sister, and she worries for Cecilia’s safety. Later, Robbie asks Briony to deliver a letter to Cecilia. Due to a mistake, however, he gives her the wrong letter. Rather than the apology he wrote, he hands Briony an early draft littered with vulgar language. Unable to resist, Briony reads Robbie’s letter; the language disgusts her. When Robbie realizes his mistake, he tries to apologize to Cecilia, to whom Briony has given the letter. His attempt to apologize brings their unresolved romantic tension to the surface, and they have sex in the family library. Briony walks in during their passionate encounter; as she is too young to understand sex, she again surmises that Robbie is hurting Cecilia.

Later, the family gathers for dinner. Leon has brought his friend, Paul Marshall, who is the heir to a confectionary fortune. During the meal, the family realizes that the twins are missing. Search parties form and fan out over the estate. Briony finds Lola, who had been captured and is being raped by a man who flees the scene. It is dark, and Briony cannot identify the man due to the lack of light; Lola is too traumatized to speak. With the image of Robbie and Cecilia’s encounter in her mind, Briony convinces herself that Robbie is the rapist. She accuses him of raping Lola, announcing her suspicions to the police even though she could not see clearly the perpetrator in the dark. She mentions the argument she witnessed between her sister and Robbie, as well as the letter and the events in the library. The police arrest Robbie. Cecilia and Robbie’s mother are the only characters who believe that he is innocent while Briony is convinced that she saved her sister from a violent man. Cecilia is so distraught that she leaves her family and severs contact with them.

Robbie serves several years in prison and is released only on the condition that he enlist in the British Army to fight in World War II. Cecilia remains estranged from her family due to their accusations against Robbie. Robbie and Cecilia stay in touch through letters while he is in the military. Before he is shipped to France, they meet briefly. During their 30-minute encounter, their old romantic feelings return; they kiss, and Robbie promises to return after the war.

Robbie’s time in the army is difficult. The German army’s advances push the British and French forces back; Robbie takes part in the infamous battle at Dunkirk, in which tens of thousands of British and French soldiers are forced to retreat across the British Channel in small civilian boats. Robbie is injured as he travels to Dunkirk. During this time, the memory of Cecilia gives him courage; his desire to see her again keeps him alive. He remembers his past on the Tallis estate and wonder why Briony accused him of raping Lola. He reaches Dunkirk the day before the operation begins in earnest. He lays down to sleep as the German army advances.

Years later, Briony’s past haunts her. She regrets accusing Robbie of rape and destroying her relationship with her sister. Now, she is convinced that Paul Marshall raped Lola. She has yet become a writer. Instead, she has turned down her place at Cambridge University to become a nurse and help with the war effort. She writes in her spare time but not as enthusiastically as she once did. While working as a nurse in London, she meets a young injured French man named Luc. Due to the severity of his wounds, she knows that he will not live for very long. Briony speaks to Luc, using the fragments of French she remembers from her school days. He talks about his life and a girl he once nearly married. Before he dies, Luc asks Briony whether she loves him. In that moment, she says, she does. Luc dies, and Briony imagines the life she might have led with him. Briony learns that her cousin Lola is about to marry Paul Marshall. She attends the wedding and then visits Cecilia in London. During her visit, she meets Robbie, who is on leave and visiting Cecilia. Robbie’s presence surprises her. Neither Robbie nor Cecilia can forgive Briony for what she did, though Briony is determined to do what she can to atone for her mistake. Despite launching a legal effort to clear Robbie’s name, she knows that Lola’s decision to marry Paul will mean that Paul will never be prosecuted for the rape.

In the epilogue, Briony reveals that she grew up to become a writer. Now 77, she is writing in a diary in the year 1999. The elderly Briony has been told that she will soon lose her mental faculties due to a rapid onset of dementia. Her diary entry reveals that the majority of the second part of the novel was actually an invention; Briony is the author of the events, having imagined them as different than how they actually occurred. Robbie did not return home from France, nor did he reunite with Cecilia. Instead, he died at Dunkirk before he could be evacuated. Cecilia died in London during a bomb attack while seeking cover in an underground train station. Briony did not visit their home in 1940 though she did attend the wedding of Paul Marshall and Lola. Briony knew that her sister was grieving the recent death of Robbie, but she could not bring herself to visit Cecilia due to the pain she knows that she caused her sister. Instead, Briony has used her writing talents to try to atone for the pain and suffering she caused by falsely accusing Robbie of rape. She hopes that her novel, which contains her imagined version of events, will provide some way for Robbie and Cecilia to finally be together.

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